Late Falcons LB Tommy Nobis, ‘Mr. Falcon,’ Found To Have Had Severe Form Of CTE
It’s easy to see when a slot receiver runs over the middle and get lit up by a safety. Those two, the tackler and the ball carrier, have developed into our picture of CTE.
It’s definitely improved, you no longer get punch-drunk or have your bell rung. Instead, it’s a concussion. But there’s a common misconception with how we view concussions and the CTE that develops alongside them. It’s the lineman, offensive and defensive, who are most often at risk. Though they don’t take brutal downfield hits that level them, they take constant hits to the head. These subconcussive hits often add up and create danger similar to a concussion.
But in one case, a player is immediately removed from the game after symptoms are shown. In the other, there’s often no way to tell if there were these subconcussive hits or if it’s “just football.”
Former Atlanta Falcons star Tommy Nobis is the picture-perfect image of this. Though he played linebacker, in his era they often functioned similarly to defensive ends today. And on top of that, he played offensive line in college. So when the BU CTE center found that Nobis, known as “Mr.Falcon,” had the most severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, his family wasn’t surprised.
“Growing up, I remember my mom having to call his secretary when he was going out to training camp to let them know what kind of mood he was in. And then vice versa,” his daughter, Devon Jackoniski, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“We were pretty uneasy growing up,” she said. “Although my dad had just some beautiful moments of being a wonderful man, emotionally he was so unstable it was just hard to get close to him.”
Jackoniski is currently a physician’s assistant. Even without this knowledge, she could tell there was something deeply wrong with her father. “We knew there was going to be something wrong on his pathology report,” she said. “But it was shocking how a human being could still be alive with that little functioning brain.”
There were restaurants they couldn’t go to because he’d lose his temper, a symptom of CTE. There were outbursts like how at the bank drive-thru when he got out and yelled at a teller for taking too long with the car in front of him. There was Tommy, the aggressive and intense disciplinarian whose family “walked around eggshells.” There was Tommy, the humble man who was called a saint and made people laugh.
But there was always football. “It doesn’t matter the time of year, my dad could always find a football game on,” Jackoniski said. “That was basically our lives. When he retired, his only career was with the Falcons. We would go to all the Falcons games, whether we wanted to or not. That was who we were.”
“That truly was my dad’s first love,” she added. “He wasn’t born with a lot of money. They were from a blue-collar area. It gave my dad a lot of opportunities, so it’s kind of a thing.
“He told me before he became very ill he would never turn his back on football or do anything different. But he would educate kids a little different in the game. There’s something very wrong with slamming your head against a brick wall over and over and over again.”
Nobis was the first player drafted by the expansion Falcons in 1966. As a rookie of the year and five-time Pro Bowler, he failed to reach the playoffs in 11 seasons. In fact, he was only part of two winning seasons. Even then, he didn’t leave football. He first took a job as the manager of the team’s training camp hotel and then worked his way up to through the front office until he became vice president.
“Football was my father’s life, the air he breathed and therefore the air we breathed,” she wrote to ESPN. “It brought discipline and recklessness, self-worth and depression, strength and weakness, determination and fear, teamwork and destruction of relationships, competition and dissension, friendships and loneliness, strategy and brutal honesty, entertainment and subsistence.
The Falcons first went to the Super Bowl in 1998. They’d lose to the Denver Broncos, 34-19. They’d get a second shot at the Lombardi trophy 16 years later in 2016. They’d lose again. But that didn’t matter to Nobis. He was too far gone to understand what was going on. Doctors found that he had “severe loss of neurons and large CTE lesions throughout the cerebral cortex.”
The man that couldn’t leave football was left behind. Left out of Canton, left out of success, even left out of his own body. 10 months and 8 days after Super Bowl LI he passed away. Jackoniski doesn’t watch football anymore but she’ll have to watch the Super Bowl “just because I know it will be on in our house.” By the end, the man who was the Falcons didn’t know who “Mr.Falcon” was.